Ofsted: Off With Its Head

Here in the UK we have a government department called The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), which ‘inspects’ and ‘regulates’ state and private schools. Ofsted employs 2,317 people and has an annual budget of over £200 million.

Everyone at Ofsted’s livelihoods depend on there being schools that ‘require improvement’ or are ‘inadequate’. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Ofsted has for the last three decades continued to declare around a third of schools (which numbers thousands) to be below standard and therefore in requirement of Ofsted supervision/sanctions. Ofsted’s standards have over the years become increasingly difficult to meet, in response to schools doing a better job of achieving them, which has maintained enough ‘failing’ schools to justify its continued existence. The irony is, of course, that this has actually built a strong argument in favour of its own abolishment by doing this because despite 30 years of Ofsted inspections there is still a third of schools ‘below standard’. If Ofsted was an effective way to raise standards in education, then surely we should have very few ‘inadequate’ schools by now. Once a government agency is created and vested interests are planted like roots in the ground, it sticks around for a long time. Like a perennial weed.

Four years ago Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, came up with the idea of ‘Free Schools’ based on the radical notion that:

“…giving heads and teachers greater freedom over their curriculum, budget and staff can help improve the quality of the education they provide and reduce the attainment gap. We also believe giving parents, teachers and charities the ability to open schools in response to the needs of the local community will help to raise standards.”

Now, where did he get the crazy idea that freedom for individuals to act is a good thing? Oh that’s right, the rest of freakin’ society – or at least every inch that’s outside of government control.

With Free Schools, Gove is trying to simulate peaceful society,  – i.e. free markets – but within the coercive boundaries of the regulatory body of Ofsted and minus the profit and loss system. Not so much a simulation, then, more a bastardization. This hybrid might be an improvement on what went before, but it’s not going to achieve the same increase in and level of quality that we have every reason to expect to happen in a truly free market for education. Why is it reasonable to expect this? Because it happens all around us every day in the markets of our lives that have greater degrees of freedom, and it’s been happening for centuries. When individuals are free to compete and innovate in the production of any given product or service that’s when society sees the greatest rise in quality and decrease in cost of that product/service. Whenever and wherever liberty is restricted society cannot fully benefit from the power of competition and innovation.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why Ofsted, Free Schools and a state monopoly on the provision of education in general cannot achieve better results than a free-market for education. For a start, it’s Ofsted that decides which schools stay in business and which schools are put out of business – and not the people schools are (supposed) to aim to satisfy, i.e. children and parents. That doesn’t best serve society because we can only end up with schools that uniformly satisfy a set of requirements of a small group of people called Ofsted inspectors, and not necessarily the almost infinitely varied requirements and preferences of individual students. This is because what pleases Ofsted inspectors about the way any given school delivers its services isn’t necessarily the same as what satisfies students and their parents. Secondly, anyone who’s interested in opening a ‘Free School’ (or indeed any kind of school) still has to ask the government’s permission; there’s a ‘application process’. That’s the tell-tale sign of a society where peaceful people must ask permission to act, and not of a truly free and peaceful society. Such arbitrary and unnecessary barriers and restrictions only serve to impede society’s progress towards higher quality and lower costs in education.

It doesn’t take much to imagine a society with a free and peaceful education market. There would be no barriers to entry and so there would be lots more schools than there are now. More schools would mean more diversity, competition and innovation, which would drive down costs and increase quality as the not-so-good schools were pushed out of the market by the more accomplished schools. From the economy’s point of view this is also a much more efficient solution because there’s far less misallocation of resources (i.e. wealth) than there is in a government controlled system where one group of people are given the power to direct resources as far as they see fit – which is necessarily not very far.

In short, Gove may have introduced more ‘freedom’ – in the same way a fish keeper introduces more freedom to his fish with a bigger tank – but it’s not anywhere near enough. It’s important at this point to note that freedoms can only be ‘given’ if they were first taken away. Every human is free by default until someone restricts their freedom using coercion. If the government wasn’t preventing people who wanted to educate and create schools from acting freely in the first place, then men like Gove wouldn’t get to bestow certain freedoms upon people under the pretence that doing so is somehow a wonderful act of benevolence and enlightened thinking.

Of course, if Gove did truly liberate education, then he’d put himself and thousands of other public sector workers out of a job, and so, needless to say, he’s very unlikely to be doing that. Interestingly, some of those people might get those jobs back if a liberated society decides it wants a (non-coercive, of course) regulatory body for education. Then again, they might not. Who knows. Only time and millions of free-market exchanges can tell.

Does society need Ofsted because schools are failing their students? Or are schools failing their students because society doesn’t need a government agency by the name of Ofsted?

Who should get to decide whether a school is good or adequate or unsatisfactory? Should it be those whom teachers aim to benefit – i.e. children and parents? Or should it be a third-party who proclaims to know what millions of individuals what from an education better than the individuals themselves and who has a vested interest in judging schools to be under-performing?

Ofsted’s motto (seen above) is ‘raising standards, improving lives’. Choosing this over ‘aiming to raise standards and improve lives’ demonstrates the disturbing lack of humility that characterises the type of person who ends up in positions of power in government. This motto is an arrogant assertion of a group of people’s unfounded belief in their own superiority and benevolence rather than a kindly statement of intent. If it were to reflect reality it should instead read: restricting and impeding the raising of standards, preventing others from improving lives. That’s the Ofsted way.

To end on a positive note, let’s be inspired by the way the Internet (probably the single most productive and beautiful product of human liberty) is revolutionising education. It’s resplendent with free and high quality educational material from some of the world’s leading educational institutes, as well as other entrepreneurial providers too – and just everyday folk who are good at explaining stuff. All the maths, science, english, history and geography you learn at state school you can learn on the web with added benefit of the freedom and capacity to pursue any given area more broadly and deeply. All with the added bonus of being treated like a human being and not a tool for teacher to pass her Ofsted inspections, and not having to sit in a class of 30 other children half of whom have lost all interest in paying attention to the teacher.

No politicians or policy-makers or government think-tanks planned or could possibly have planned the digital world known as the Internet. Through spontaneous order, through anarchy (that scary word), through millions of people pursuing their own individual ends it has become the greatest educational tool in the history of civilisation. This is even more remarkable when we remember that the Internet is still only about two decades old. Here in the UK the government began monopolising the provision of education over 130 years ago.

It’s no coincidence that the Internet is the most liberated part of our society – i.e. it was born free and has remained largely free of government control. The digital realm is the one area where individuals can act practically entirely freely of government regulation and legislation. This is what makes it very different from the physical world. Anyone can open a school on the web, or produce educational material or offer tutoring services. The result of this liberty has been an explosion in productivity and innovation from which the entire world is benefiting in ways we couldn’t possibly have predicted. Sure, the Internet has its ugly side, but for the most part it’s beautiful, productive and peaceful. Anyone entering is free to explore as they wish, free to follow any and every path that appeals most. The same cannot be said of state education. Everyone entering is shoved onto the same treadmill and as a result emerges after several years thinking in the same circles as their fellow inmates.

People often cry out to the government for ‘free’ education of the highest quality. But governments, the world over, have failed to deliver. Not because by some extraordinary twist of fate they’re full of incompetent educators, but because government is an inappropriate means to achieve such an end. State education is not free, it necessarily discourages independent thought and state schools have began to resemble prisons more than places of learning. liberty, the opposite of government, in the shape of the technology we call the Internet, has enabled educators to provide truly free education to the world.

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